My name is Dale and food has always been important to me, with some of my earliest memories being food related. It was always a prominent part of family life when I was a child so, although it took me up to the age of thirty-two to make the move to working as a chef, I think it was always inevitable.
My ten years or so working in professional kitchens was an incredibly rewarding experience and I am so glad that I made it happen. But without doubt, it was also one of the most difficult
periods of my life and the one which presented me with the widest gamut of challenges both professionally and personally. I knew it would be hard starting at the bottom in my early thirties, but I had little idea that it would come very close to breaking me and the day I decided I could no longer work as a chef was heartbreaking.
I retrained at Leeds Thomas Danby College in 2006 after a career as an engineer, and at the time food and cooking had become a big part of my life so I felt that an obvious next step would be to become a chef. I had absolutely no idea what would be involved, but my domestic enjoyment of cooking risottos for friends at weekends, shopping for vegetables at farmers markets and reading Anthony Bourdain books drove me to pursue it as a second career.
The first day I spent in a kitchen was a real eye opener. From initial impressions I could see how the chefs in the kitchen were under pressures of time, long hours, and the uncertainty of what each day would bring but I sort of just accepted that was how it was and got on learning as much as I could. I worked a few evenings and went to college during the day so my first year was a gentle ease into the industry. This casual working arrangement combined with the discovery of Marco Pierre White’s White Heat and Larousse Gastronomique cemented my desire to make a mark and work towards getting a Michelin star, something I later came to realize was driven by the romance of the prominent chefs of that era and far from achievable for the majority of chefs. Prior to this I had very little knowledge of the industry – I knew nothing about how kitchens worked, I had never heard of the Michelin guide and the only chef I knew of was Gordon Ramsay. I was completely oblivious to how little I knew and what I was getting into, but I loved food, I loved cooking, and I had a real passion for ingredients, so I never consciously questioned it to any great extent.
I had always liked a drink and as I look back over the years, I can see that the slow and steady build of consumption had already started to take its toll.
Weekends and evenings were heavily focused on social gatherings and always involved alcohol so when I started working in hospitality it was like putting a square peg into a perfectly crafted square hole.
Drinks after service were the perfect mechanism to wind down after what was often organised chaos in a very stressful and challenging environment and spending most of my time with other people in the industry went a long way to normalising what was soon to become a slippery slope. Before I knew it, I had been holding my own as a chef for a couple of years and was well into the swing of things working as a chef de partie. I was full of ideas and creativity, and I worked hard on my sections but unfortunately the thing which was missing from my development was proper training. I could cook but wasn’t being taught about costing a dish. I could organise myself but it wasn’t being explained to me how wastage would impact the business. And I was putting lots of hours in but wasn’t being given an understanding of the importance of working efficiently. And the result of this lack of training was an average chef just managing to hold my head above water and using alcohol in my down time to relieve the stress and delay any negative effects the job was having on me personally.
The biggest mistake I made during my career as a chef was hiding my problems. I was presenting a person who was managing well and playing the role of a chef who had his shit together.
I was asking for responsibility and applying for jobs which enabled it in order that I could try to achieve my dream of gaining some accolades in my own right. But this self-induced pressure led to not only drinking heavily at home but at times drinking on the job because of the fear, anxiety, depression, and stress I was experiencing. I had started to hide booze in my bag and sneak a drink in the changing room when I got the chance. This led to drinking on the bus on the way home and before I knew it my drinking was completely out of control and if I was not drinking, I would be thinking about when I would be drinking next. Fast forward to six or seven years into my cooking career and it’s an absolute car crash.
More jobs behind me than I care to remember and far too many kitchens I walked out of or even got sacked from. Up and down the country, as a result of searching for the perfect job which would have a user-friendly environment, there were kitchens which I had had a detrimental effect on because of my actions and this only added to my poor mental state. The irony of the situation I found myself in was that if I had spoken to the chefs I was working for and asked them for help it would have made my life easier. If I had opened up and told them I was struggling they would have helped me and helped me to become a better chef with better developed skills and the ability to deal with the challenges which were going to present themselves on a day-to-day basis in a busy kitchen. I was far too proud to admit that I did not have the ability to deal with my responsibilities in a calm, measured and effective manner and my enjoyment of the job which I wanted so badly to enjoy was not forthcoming.
I finally found a kitchen in Birmingham I was suited to and although far from perfect, I was working with a head chef who not only had a true love of food and cooking but also had the skills to teach me many of the things I needed to make my work life easier. Being a believer that knowledge is power and a great facilitator in many areas of the kitchen role, I knew that the chef saw my creativity was not matched by my cooking and organisational abilities, so he addressed this in a gentle manner.
I began to see some light at the end of the tunnel because of his engagement with not just myself but also the rest of his kitchen team and was much better equipped in my responsibilities.
Sadly, by this time my drinking was far too much of my daily routine and it continued for many years without me having the ability to address it.
The ten years I spent cooking was a real roller coaster. When I compare the first kitchen I ever worked in, to the last kitchen I ever worked in they are in complete contrast. A short staffed and overworked average restaurant in Leeds, drink and drug fuelled chefs struggling to keep it together for an unpredictable service was how my career began. A leadership team with a focus on money and as many covers as they could squeeze in was the biggest driver behind how the business operated.
My last day spent cooking was in a Michelin starred country house hotel in the Sussex countryside. Led by a head chef who clearly understood the effects this environment could have on his staff and who put measures in place to counter it - this kitchen was a positive place to be.
With a focus on staff welfare as focused as the quality of the produce, I enjoyed the environment and learned a great deal from everyone I spent time with.
So, as I compare these two workplaces, and with my knowledge and experience over the period of a decade, I see that not only is there a fundamental change happening in the industry, but I also see that it is being driven by some of the more prominent and influential chefs, businesses, and business owners in the hospitality sector.
For anyone reading this condensed story of my time in hospitality who may relate to any of the issues which I encountered, I would like to say that there is help out there. Talking to your line manager and your friends and family in the first instance are key to overcoming these issues before they get out of control. I learned the hard way that not only are there ways to deal with these issues, but if addressed in a timely manner and when the warning signs present themselves, they are often relatively simple to deal with.
I discovered The Burnt Chef Project podcasts recently and they have helped me a great deal so far. I have not worked in the industry for around five years but the podcasts I have listened to have helped me come to an understanding that I was suffering in silence and needlessly because I was not being honest with myself. There are a wealth of real life and honest stories being told by some very prominent individuals and I feel that no matter where you sit in the hospitality industry the problems do not discriminate and can affect everyone equally. My personal experience has been one of many positive and not so positive emotions and had I approached thing differently it could have quite easily been very different indeed.
I don’t drink now as I see that my life is better without it. I am considering getting back into the hospitality industry because I have managed to identify where I could have made my life and cooking career easier and more rewarding.
I have a much healthier daily routine now which could give me a better hospitality experience overall and this combined with a real love for food, cooking and ingredients, I might just find some more opportunities to share this with others. There are people in the industry who genuinely care about the people who make it what it is and want to improve it. Not only do they want to improve it for themselves but also for the staff and customers who get so much benefit from it every day. This gives me hope and a reignited passion for being a professional cook.
If you want to talk to someone about your mental health, please take a look at The Burnt Chef Support Services available to The Burnt Chef Project Community. We've got your back, there's always someone to talk to. 24/7 and in confidence.